Several central Oklahoma sheriff candidates — both incumbents and challengers — have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past, public records show.
The jurisdictions include Oklahoma, Cleveland, Logan, Lincoln, Grady and McClain counties, all part of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.
Among the group are three current sheriffs, including Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel.
In Lincoln and Logan counties, both the incumbent and the challenger have sought protection from creditors in federal court. Canadian County is the only one in the metro area where neither of the candidates has filed for bankruptcy.
Annual budgets for sheriff's departments, even in smaller counties, typically run well into the millions.
Canadian County Sheriff Randall Edwards, who is facing a former subordinate in next month's election, said being financially responsible is essential for a sheriff.
As elected officials, sheriffs are responsible for managing the finances and personnel of what is typically a county's largest agency — by far.
“Money is always an issue,” Edwards said. “You've got to work with the resources you have, just like with your personal money.”
Edwards, who is responsible for about $4.7 million each year to run his department, also said he feels like a bankruptcy doesn't disqualify a candidate from seeking office, depending on the circumstances.
“In some cases, given our economy today, if a person is forced into bankruptcy ... I don't think that ought to completely exempt somebody from being sheriff,” Edwards said. “There are circumstances beyond some people's control.”
More recent filings
The metro-area sheriff candidate who most recently filed for bankruptcy did so eight years ago.
Kelly Owings, an independent candidate for sheriff in Cleveland County, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004.
Court records show Owings, 50, and his wife at the time had amassed $142,069 in debt by May 2004. The creditor with the largest claim was a mortgage company, who was owed $72,000 at the time of the filing.
Other debt consisted of $12,120 in credit card claims, $13,971 in medical bills and $2,774 for what was described as a 401 (k) loan.
The bankruptcy was the second for Owings and his former wife. The couple had filed before in May 1991, records show.
More recently, Owings was sued in small claims court after he failed to pay off $3,416 in credit card debt.
Owings could not be reached for comment on this story.
McClain County sheriff candidate Ryan Lake filed for bankruptcy roughly six months after Owings, in November 2004.
It's was Lake's second bankruptcy, but unlike his first filing — a Chapter 7 — the candidate claims he paid most of his debts back.
With a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, debtors are allowed a specific amount of time to spread payments out while avoiding contact with creditors. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy typically involves discharging of most of the filer's debt, essentially “wiping the slate clean,” as Lake put it.
In Lake's first bankruptcy, which was filed in April 2000, he and his wife had accumulated $6,605 in credit card debt and owed $4,646 for personal loans.
Court documents show that Lake and his wife had a 1997 Pontiac Trans Am, a 1999 Ford F-250 and a 1997 Maxum ski boat repossessed between mid-1999 and March 2000, the month before the couple filed for bankruptcy protection.
Lake said he wasn't surprised to learn that eight sheriff candidates in the metro area had sought bankruptcy protection in the past.
“Law enforcement pay is so low ... you run yourself ragged trying to survive,” Lake said. “I've worked two or three jobs to keep me and my family afloat. It happens in law enforcement.”
Lake said the bankruptcies, despite the hardships they caused, helped him become more financially responsible.
“You don't this job for the money,” he said. “You do it because it's in your blood, and you want to help people.”
Most cases from '90s
Lincoln County Sheriff Charlie Dougherty filed for bankruptcy protection in December 1996, a year before his opponent in next month's election, Wesley Scott Donovan, did the same.
Dougherty and his wife at the time had accumulated $131,861 in debt by the time the couple sought protection in federal court. The couple since have divorced, records show.
The couple's credit card bills totaled $21,179 by the end of 1996, records show. The largest creditor was a mortgage company, who was owed $89,000 for the Doughertys' home.
At the time, Dougherty claimed a $1,227 monthly income from his job with the city of Prague. The couple also listed additional income, which was not specified, totaling roughly $18,000 a year.
The couple also owed $1,550 for a home entertainment center and $1,856 for a Kawasaki motorcycle, records show.
Donovan, Dougherty's opponent in the Lincoln County sheriff race, filed for bankruptcy protection in July 1997.
Included on Donovan's list of creditors were 11 credit card companies, who were seeking a combined $32,500 from the couple, records show.
Other than the credit cards, Donovan listed no other unsecured debts. Secured claims included roughly $18,000 in auto loans and $5,684 in student loans.
Donovan could not be reached to comment on this story, but he told The Oklahoman in June that he was working two jobs and trying to make ends meet when he and his wife at the time filed for bankruptcy.
Dougherty, Donovan's opponent, did not return calls seeking comment.
Both sheriff candidates in Logan County have filed for bankruptcy in the past, as well.
Challenger Ben McHand and his ex-wife filed in March 1995 after amassing $71,806 in debt.
The couple owed $7,878 for “household furnishings” and $5,228 for a “firearm purchase” made the year before the bankruptcy, records show.
Most of the outstanding debts McHand and his wife listed in court documents were incurred in the two years before the bankruptcy. The couple also owed $2,255 for four separate signature loans, which were taken out one right after the other between March and June of 1994.
McHand and his wife listed no credit cards on their claim forms, although documents show the couple had a mobile home and a Mercury Cougar repossessed in the years leading up to the bankruptcy.
McHand could not be reached to comment on this story.
Logan County Sheriff Jim Bauman and his wife at the time filed for bankruptcy protection in July 1999.
The county's top lawman's largest debts were bank loans and a mortgage, which totaled about $90,000, records show.
Bauman and his wife at the time owed $757 in state income taxes and listed credit card debt totaling $2,166 on claim forms. The couple claimed $4,030 in unsecured bank loans and $1,866 in medical bills.
The sheriff also listed $785 for a security system on his list of unsecured claims, records show.
Bauman did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Jeff Franklin, who is running for sheriff in Grady County, filed for bankruptcy in May 1999.
By that time, Franklin and his former wife had accumulated $75,527 in debt, including $15,000 for a tract of land in Blanchard and mobile home valued at $35,000.
Medical bills totaling roughly $6,500 were the Franklins' largest unsecured debt.
Franklin, who was a police officer in Minco at the time, listed a monthly income of just $1,010, which included proceeds from a side business.
When reached by phone, Franklin said a failed marriage and the expense of having two children contributed to the bankruptcy.
“A divorce will make you do things and make decisions you don't normally make,” Franklin said. “You learn from your mistakes, though. You see where you went wrong and do what you can to avoid going there again.”
Whetsel filed for bankruptcy in October 1987. He told The Oklahoman in 1996 that he and his wife at the time filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy after a bad “oil field” investment.
Whetsel, despite filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, claimed in 1996 that he repaid 93 percent of the debt listed in court records.
Darrell Sorrels, Whetsel's opponent in next month's general election, has not filed for bankruptcy protection, court records show.